Former Defra Secretary Owen has joined forces with high-profile environmentalists to promote ‘eco-modernism’, the idea that science and technology hold the key to enhancing the world’s natural environment.
Mr Paterson once again attacked the ‘green blob’ of environmental groups who he blames for turning Europe into a ‘museum for agriculture’ denied of important new technologies.
The Shropshire MP was speaking alongside author and journalist Matt Ridley at an event in London, hosted by his UK2020 think tank.
They were joined by Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at the US Cornell University and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, from the Breakthrough Institute in California, who are in the UK to promote the Eco-modernist manifesto.
The idea is a simple one – that by maximising production on the best land available through high-tech agriculture, there will be more room for nature to thrive on the remainder of the world’s land.
A direct retort to those who claim organic farming and agro-ecology are the route to a healthy global environment, eco-modernism advocates the use of GM technology, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and increased mechanism in farming as the answer to freeing up nature’s resources.
Mr Paterson said: “The key idea behind Ecomodernism is that the more technology human beings adopt, the more they can decouple from dependence on the natural environment and live lives that are prosperous but green."
Mr Schellenberger said the concept recognised the ‘positive role human development and technology can have on the environment’.
Technological improvements in agriculture over the past 50 years have meant the amount of land required for growing crops and animal feed for the average person had declined by a half. This has resulted in re-forestation in parts of the ‘rich world’.
Currently nearly a quarter of the earth’s land is used for pasture to graze livestock, 12 per cent for crops, 9 per cent for wood, while cities cover just three per cent.
This currently leaves more than 50 per cent for nature. But with many species currently endangered by loss of habitat, the goal must be to further reduce the land needed for agriculture and energy by boosting production.
“We save nature by not using it, by leaving it alone,” was his refrain.
“We use about half of the earth. With more people living in cities and more intensive agriculture - far less land use for meat, crops and wood - can we leave 75 per cent to nature? Yes, I think we can because we have done it before.”
Mr Lynas claimed Monsanto, the focus for many years of the anti-GM movement, was ‘probably an environmental net positive for the world’.
Provocatively, he added, with its GM corn and cotton crops, the US biotech giant has ‘likely done more than the entire organic movement to reduce insecticide use and without the trade-off in lost productivity’, he said.
Yet saying anything positive about companies like Monsanto was ‘great and utter taboo in green movement circles’.
Mr Lynas, who shot to prominence when he announced he had changed his stance on GM crops in 2013, insisted eco-modernism was not a rejection of traditional environmentalism but was ‘an attempt to recognise its limitations and move beyond it’.
“Technology is not a dirty word. It is what sets us apart from other species.”
“If the world switched to organic low-yield agriculture, I think we would clearly pay the price in lost rain forests.”
Viscount Ridley, a Times columnist and author of science books who is also Mr Paterson’s brother in law, argued economic growth was ‘the solution to improving the environment, not the problem’.
He said the best way to reduce the earth’s ‘human footprint’ was by developing new technologies and joined Mr Lynas and Mr Paterson in criticising environmentalists groups ‘who have been so opposed to innovation’.
“The opposition to GM food in Europe has been a catastrophe for the environment, as well as the agricultural industry. Fracking in Europe is following exactly the same songbook,” he said.
Strongly pushing the case for use of fossil fuels, he questioned whether ‘global warming is the big huge problem’ it had been made out to be, a claim disputed by Mr Schellenberger.
Mr Paterson welcomed the coming of together of his right wing think and environmentalists at the other end of the political spectrum.
“Europe is becoming the museum of world farming and it is going to slip further and further behind,” he said.
“French maize production has fallen behind America to the extent that if France produced maize as efficiently, it would free up 150,000 hectares of forestry or produce another 4m tonnes of maize. This is because Europe is turning its back on technology,” he said.
Moving onto a familiar theme, the former Defra Secretary highlighted the ban on neonicotinoids as an example of how the environmental movement had ‘effectively blocked a technology and ignored the science’.
Citing the 85,000 emails he received urging the Government to ban it, he said: “The influencing element here wasn’t rational people talking about science it was the emotion of this massive international campaign driven by green groups.”
He explained UK 2020 was trying ‘present a ’whole new environmental policy for whoever the new leader of the Conservative Party is’ ahead of the 2020 election.
Mr Paterson said he wanted to shift the prevailing perception that economic activity ‘was not seen as a good thing’, with ‘human beings treated as rats who pollute the planet’, instead urging politicians and the public to embrace technological progress.
Describing legendary crop scientists Norman Bourlag as ‘the greatest man of the 20th century’ he said: “We believe technology has driven huge benefits. It has empowered people. It has enriched people. It has fed people.”
He was encouraged to tone down his rhetoric on the green blob by Mr Lynas, who argued more could be gained by the argument becoming less partisan and the two sides seeking common ground.
Mr Paterson was having none of it. Eco-modernism, he said, was a ‘positive’ way of encouraging good things to happen with the use technology in contrast to the ‘relentless pessimism of the environmental movement’.
"I think it is really important we present a different argument to show we can make progress," he said.